cover image Evelyn Waugh: A Biography

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography

Selena Hastings, Selina Hastings. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $40 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-395-71821-6

English biographer Hastings (Nancy Mitford) understands exactly the nature of her task, proclaiming at the start of this massive, elegantly written and exhaustively researched biography that her subject's reputation rests on two premises--``that he was one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century, and that as a man he was a monster.'' She was given unrestricted access to letters and diaries (many of them unpublished) and has come up with a study that is respectful of Waugh's accomplishments though perhaps excessively forgiving of his preposterous behavior toward friends, family and the world at large. Waugh (1903-1966) was a bullying, choleric man who frequently drank himself into oblivion, but whose wildly satiric humor endeared him to the smart set at Oxford and later in London and became the basis of the series of brilliant novels, written in the '20s and '30s, portraying that world. He was an unapologetic snob who genuinely believed that Britain's landed gentry were a superior race; who despised children (including most of his own), the lower classes, foreigners and modern life in general; and who was a passionate convert to the reactionary extremes of Roman Catholicism. (Nancy Mitford asked him how he reconciled ``being so horrible with being a Christian.'' Waugh replied that he would be ``even more horrible'' except for his faith--``and anyway would have committed suicide years ago.'') He hated Americans, and when Brideshead Revisited, the work for which he is probably best known, was a success in the U.S., he wrote: ``I thought it in good taste before but now know it can't be.'' The entertainment value of Waugh's highly eccentric life, as of much of his work, is high, and Hastings has given the most detailed and graceful account of both yet to appear. Photos. (Apr.)